Thursday, February 24, 2011

Journey Into the UNKNOWN - A Review of Liam Neeson's Latest!


- I am still waiting for the first awesomely badass B-movie of 2011. Usually, January and February produce at least one genuinely kickass pulp action movie - something that was deemed too cheesy for Oscar season, too out-there for Summer blockbuster season. The past few years have seen movies like Rambo, Doomsday, and Daybreakers - all future midnight movie classics - come out in the early part of the year (the perfect antidote for all the prestige, Oscar-bait pics that come out in November and December). One other movie that belongs in the same category as the ones I just mentioned? Taken. That movie flat-out kicked ass, and with little fanfare or hype, it went on to becomea huge hit - solidifying a middle-aged Liam Neeson as an unlikely pulp action hero. So ... would UNKNOWN be Taken redux? The marketing certainly tried to position it that way. It does, after all, once again feature Neeson as an unassuming American in Europe, forced to fight off an onslaught of sinister conspirators. But whereas Taken featured a simple plot that allowed for maximum gravitas, Unknown goes in the other direction, offering up a convoluted jigsaw puzzle plotline that is nowhere near as clever or as interesting as it aims to be. Taken seemed to wink at its audience just enough, with Luc Besson's unique brand of Euro-action sensibilities driving the tone. Unknown doesn't seem to want to acknowledge how over the top and absurd it is. The laughs here feel mostly unintentional, and instead of a badass B-movie, we get a subpar head-scratcher.

In Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris (great character name, I have to admit). Harris is some sort of biologist / botanist who travels to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for an important bio-tech conference. As Harris checks in to his hotel, he realizes that he's left one of his suitcases at the airport. He runs to get a taxi to take him back into the airport, and gets into a cab driven by a mysterious woman (Diane Kruger). Suddenly, on the way to the airport, the cab crashes. Neeson wakes up in the hospital, having been out for an extended period. And from there, things get weird. He's lost his wallet and ID, and has no proof of his identity. When he track down his wife, she's with another man who claims to be Martin Harris. Somehow, Neeson's existence has been wiped out, and he's been replaced by another man. But how? Why? Is Neeson the victom of an elaborate conspiracy, or is he simply insane - somehow filled with false memories of a life that he never actually lived?

It's a setup that is certainly intriguing, and for a while it's fun to simply follow Neeson as he seeks to put the puzzle pieces together. This is, of course, exactly the sort of role that Neeson excels at - an everyman forced to call upon extraordinary willpower and toughness in order to escape some sort of nightmarish situation. And Neeson is a master at capturing just the right action-movie tone - serious, grounded, and yet just badass and over-the-top enough that it seems natural for him to start kicking ass when called upon.

Diane Krueger compliments Neeson nicely as well. The scenes between them have an extra spark thanks to Krueger's natural charisma and aura of mystery. On the other hand, January Jones mostly falls flat as Neeson's wife. Not only is the age gap between them fairly conspicuous, but Jones plays a crucial role that requires an actress who can really say a lot with a quick glance or subtle gesture. Jones is basically a blank slate in this one, so her character is ultimately pretty disposable. We never get much of a read on her one way or the other, so instead of coming off as mysterious, she just comes off as robotic. One actor who does really stand out though is Bruno Ganz as Jurgen, an elderly, former German secret police officer who helps Neeson figure out what's happening to him. Ganz is delightfully hammy, and shares an awesomely entertaining scene with Frank Langella, who crops up as a possibly-sinister associate of Neeson's (though come on, when has Frank Langella NOT been sinister in any movie he's been in in the last five years?). Unfortunately, not many other scenes in Unknown can match the sheer, pulpy goodness of that one encounter. At least the movie's first half has a nice sense of intrigue and tension. But as we get more answers, things become increasingly absurd, and not in a good way.

I mean, there's something to be said for a movie that can reveal its various twists with a measure of relish and gusto. I think of last summer's SALT, which made me smile with the sheer audacity of its various reveals. In UNKNOWN, the twists are never really that jaw-dropping or fun, they just sort of happen, and rather than add to the plot, they only muddle things. Characters seem to come into conflict in this movie for no real reason, and the individual action / chase / fight scenes are at times cool, but we never have much sense of why anyone is in conflict with anyone else. The movie's climactic fight scene is particularly absurd, with Neeson engaged in a brutal fight to the death for reasons that are largely unknown to us, even by movie's end (pun intended).

That said, the movie does feature one admittedly awesome car chase, that sort of comes out of nowhere and ends up being one of the best car battles I've seen on screen in a while. Unfortunately, it seems like director Jaume Collet-Serra put his all into a couple of scenes, but for the most part seemed content to just give the movie an eerie blue tint and call it a day. Certainly, this one lacks the same barrage of badass fight scenes as, say, Taken.

Unknown has the makings of a great action / mystery movie, but it ultimately drops the ball and never quite comes together in a satisfying manner. It's entertaining enough that it made for perfectly acceptable entertainment on a cold, rainy afternoon here in LA. But this is one that is pretty instantly forgettable. Liam Neeson is a guy who is always fun to watch kick ass ... he does, after all, have "a very special set of skills." But unfortunately, Unknown doesn't quite know what to do with 'em.

My Grade: C+

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